Esophageal spasm can be a scary and uncomfortable condition. It can be mistaken for acid reflux, heart problems or the feeling that food is caught in your throat. It’s a condition where the muscles of your esophagus, the tube between your mouth and stomach, involuntarily contract. This can cause a painful sensation that something is stuck in your throat or chest, can be associated with heartburn, or cause food to be regurgitated.
Esophageal spasm can sometimes be difficult to diagnose, because it’s frequently related to or occurs in tandem with other conditions. One common issue is when the cricopharyngeal muscle, also known as the upper esophageal sphincter, spasms and partially closes your esophagus. This causes the painful sensation of something being caught in your throat that no amount of swallowing will relieve. Another related condition is heartburn, also called GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux disease), in which inflammation to your esophagus from heartburn can trigger painful spasms.
There are a number of factors that may contribute to the cause of this condition. Among them are drinking alcohol, eating spicy foods, eating very hot or very cold foods, chronic sinus drainage, and stress or emotional upsets.
If you were to go to your doctor for the symptoms of esophageal spasm, in most cases their first order of business would be to rule out dysphagia, which is difficulty swallowing, and a different condition altogether. They would also try to determine the cause of your spasms, but in many cases may not find any underlying source of your symptoms. Often, they will treat your condition by prescribing medications for heartburn, antidepressants to manage the pain, proton pump inhibiting medications to control excess stomach acid, or in extreme and intractable cases, recommend surgery.
Your doctor may also recommend some lifestyle changes that can help with the symptoms. Among them:
- Avoiding triggers, such as foods that are very spicy or high in acid, alcoholic drinks, and any other foods that may irritate your esophagus or cause acid reflux.
- Eating smaller meals more frequently.
- Avoid eating two hours before bedtime, so you’re not digesting while lying down.
- Losing weight if you need to, which can improve your digestion.
Esophageal spasm is a common and effectively treated condition in Chinese medicine. It’s frequently diagnosed as an imbalance called a disharmony between your Liver and Spleen. While that may sound complicated, it simply describes a pattern in which stress and emotional upsets override your digestion, causing a wide variety of symptoms, including esophageal spasms. While esophageal spasm is commonly diagnosed as a Liver and Spleen disharmony, it’s also frequently described as something called Plum Pit Qi. This apt name describes the sensation of having a lump in your throat the size of a plum pit, which doesn’t move, despite nothing being there.
Practitioners of Chinese medicine aren’t suggesting that this condition is all in your head. However, emotional upsets and chronic stress are a common factor that can cause or aggravate digestive problems, from loss of appetite to IBS. We have all felt a nervous stomach before a presentation or a big event, and scientists confirm that your brain and your gut are indeed connected. Your digestion is very reactive to emotions, from the sensation of butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous to the loss of appetite that comes with grief and emotional loss. Interestingly, this brain—gut connection moves both ways, in that stress, anxiety, or depression can cause digestive problems, however digestive problems can also cause stress, anxiety, or depression.
If you choose to treat your esophageal spasm with Chinese medicine, your practitioner will develop a treatment strategy specific to your unique history and symptoms. They will most likely work with you to smooth your emotions, support your digestion, and address any additional symptoms you may be having. In most cases, acupuncture would be the first line of treatment, as there are some very specific points and protocols that are effectively used for this condition.
Chinese herbs can also be a useful healing tool when it comes to treating esophageal spasm. One formula, Ban Xia Hou Po Tang, has been used since ancient times to relieve tightness and spasm in the throat, as well as to treat psychological distress. In addition, esophageal spasm is a condition that benefits from Chinese food therapy. The Chinese believe that food is medicine that you eat three times a day, and your practitioner can help you choose the foods that are the most appropriate for this diagnosis, suggest foods that support good digestion, and help you identify those that may aggravate or trigger your symptoms.
Esophageal spasm is not just something that’s all in your head; it’s a very real condition. Anxiety, stress, and emotional upsets are the underlying cause of a number of physiological changes in your body, especially when it comes to the connection between your brain and your gut. Acupuncture can be an effective treatment strategy for this condition for a number of reasons. It causes the release of feel-good and pain relieving neurotransmitters in your brain, it can help balance your stress hormones, regulate insulin, and promote good digestion.